If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Evans, Subway Passengers, New York City

Met curator Jeff Rosenheim on the art of seeing in Walker Evans’s [Subway Passengers, New York City], 1938.

View this work on metmuseum.org.
Created by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

Sometime between 1938 and 1941 Walker Evans went down into the New York City subway with his camera. He hid it between the folds of his winter coat, and he sat opposite his fellow passengers and made pictures. He photographed people as they were. They are not aware that Evans is making their picture. Most of us are uncomfortable when we know someone is photographing us. These subjects, they’re unposed and they’re lost in their own thoughts. They’re just living their life. Evans believed that the subway experience was part of the poetry of modern urban living. It reveals how close we are to our fellow man and how, even if two people are not together, once the photograph is made, they’re forever bound. When he got done, he edited the series down to about ninety pictures. When they finally were released in the 1960s, he called them, “Many Are Called.” It’s taken from the Bible. The full quote is, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” And photography’s deep language is about selectivity. The photographer harvested all of these passengers, these fellow citizens: those who are sleeping and those who wear hats, and those who look at each other and look at him. Evans wrote about these subway pictures, “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” And I think it is one of the first conceptual art projects that I’m aware of. Evans taught me that seeing is a creative act. You have to be an unapologetic voyeur. These pictures have really stained my consciousness. I don’t see them nostalgically, I don’t say, “Oh, I wish I was in the time where people wore fedoras or they brushed their hair a certain way.” I don’t feel that way at all. It enlivens my own attention to my time. The idea that the pictures are right out there on the street. I think it’s an unbelievable gift to those of us who live in cities and who take pleasure in our fellow man.